Brisbane’s first electric bus

While Brisbane City Council has been trialling four electric Yutong buses on the City Loop since June 2021, you may be surprised to learn that these are not the first zero emission buses to serve the people of Brisbane. In fact, Council’s first venture into electric-powered buses took place almost three decades earlier.

The story begins with the election of Jim Soorley as Lord Mayor of Brisbane in March 1991 who had narrowly defeated popular incumbent, Sallyanne Atkinson, who had held the mayoralty for 6 years. With City Hall under new management, there was increased focus on initiatives to reduce pollution and provide an environmentally friendly public transport system for the people of Brisbane. One such initiative investigated by Brisbane Transport and then submitted to Council’s Establishment and Co-ordination Committee (also known as Civic Cabinet) for consideration on 11 September 1991, was the trial of electric vehicles for use within the central business district. This would involve the operation of Council’s first electric powered bus.

Previous alternative energy buses

Critically, this was not Council’s first experiment with alternative energy buses having operated a modified Leyland Panther fitted with an experimental regenerative braking system for two years from November 1987. This was shortly followed by the purchase of two purpose-built M.A.N. SL202 buses powered by natural gas, the first buses of their kind in Queensland, and then the conversion of ten M.A.N. SL200 diesel buses to full natural gas operation.

1968 Leyland Panther bus number 498 was fitted with a regenerative braking, storage and propulsion system under trial by the University of Queensland’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. This vehicle is now owned by the Queensland Omnibus and Coach Society as part of it’s heritage bus fleet. Photo: Ian Lynas
Two M.A.N. SL202 buses powered by compressed natural gas operated in Council’s fleet from December 1990 to June 2006. Photo: Paul Garred

Council green lights electric bus purchase

At the meeting of Council’s Establishment and Co-ordination Committee on 7 October 1991, Lord Mayor Soorley approved a proposal prepared by the Director of Engineering, Mr. N.C. Cagney, and submitted by the Manager of the Department of Transport, Mr. L.J. Harper, as follows:

  • Purchase one Toyota Coaster from Toyota Motor Corporation and the associated electrical conversion package from Australian Electric Vehicle Manufacturers at a total cost of $86,000; and
  • Subject to satisfactory commission of the first vehicle, proceed with the purchase of up to 3 additional vehicles.

The evaluation of the first vehicle would be based upon the following criteria: public acceptance, driver acceptance, cost, performance, noise reduction, project effects of the elimination of emissions, and projected reduction on the dependence on oil reserves and the resulting cost savings. In particular, the submission noted that:

Electric vehicles potentially have advantages over traditional diesel buses in the areas of resource conservation, reduced environmental effects and long term cost savings and also have the potential to significantly raise the image of public transport in Brisbane.

A Toyota Coaster minibus was identified as the most suitable vehicle for conversion to electric power due to its size and ease of conversion. A standard model Coaster minibus would be purchased new from Toyota Motor Corporation and taken to Australian Electric Vehicle Manufacturers Pty Ltd in Sydney for conversion. This would involve the removal of the existing diesel engine and gearbox and replacing it with an electric motor and battery pack. Locally sourced components would be combined with technology currently in commercial use around Australia.

It was noted that the company engaged to perform this work, Australian Electric Vehicle Manufacturers Pty Ltd, was experienced in the manufacture and conversion of electric vehicles having successfully delivered a number of projects including exhibits for Movie World.

At the time it was envisaged that the electric vehicles would operate a “City Circle” service around the central business district that could connect the two major rail stations with Queen Street Bus Station. The submission concluded that:

The electric vehicle trial aims to improve the amenity of the inner city area by reducing noise and pollution in a cost effective manner, thereby attracting customers to public transport. At the same time the use of electric buses reduces our direct dependency on limited oil reserves.

A reduction to Council’s oil dependency would prove beneficial given that the price of diesel fuel had increased by up to 70% as a result of the Gulf War. Although it was originally anticipated by Council officials that the first vehicle would enter service by Christmas 1991, it would take until early into the new year for the battery-powered minibus to be delivered to Council. Upon arrival, the vehicle was extensively inspected and tested by Council engineers and mechanics and was stored at Light Street bus depot in Fortitude Valley.

Pictured inside Light Street depot in May 1992 prior to the official unveiling at City Hall. Photos: Ian Lynas

A breath of fresh air for the people of Brisbane

The vehicle was registered in anticipation of a public launch in anticipation of World Environment Day on 5 June 1992. As part of this promotion, the bus was fitted with a distinctive livery and signing reflecting Council’s “Breathe Easy – Brisbane, a Breath of Fresh Air” campaign. This branding, along with the inauguration of a new free loop service between Central Station and South Brisbane Station on a trial basis for 6 months, was formally approved at Council’s Establishment and Co-ordination Committee meeting on 1 June 1992.

The objectives of this trial, as contained in the submission by the Manager of Brisbane Transport, Mr. L.J. Harper, were to:

  • Evaluate the operational characteristics and reliability of an electric bus in regular service;
  • Test public acceptance of the concept; and
  • Publicise Brisbane City Council’s and Brisbane Transport’s commitment to conserving the environment through the evaluation of alternative fuelled public transport vehicles. It will enhance and enforce the “Brisbane, a Breath of Fresh Air” T.V. and bus back advertising campaigns.

The new loop service would operate free to the public at regular intervals between 9.30am and 3.30pm on Wednesday to Sunday. The bus would be garaged at Light Street depot with special bus stops erected to promote the new service.

On Wednesday, 3 June 1992, Brisbane City Council’s first electric bus was officially unveiled outside City Hall by Lord Mayor Jim Soorley.

Lord Mayor Jim Soorley unveiled Council’s first electric bus at a ceremony on King George Square outside City Hall on Wednesday, 3 June 1992. Photos: Brisbane City Council

Performance and reliability issues

Unfortunately, the launch did not go to plan with the bus, loaded with dignitaries, breaking down on its inaugural run. Changes to the set route of the loop service were immediately implemented by Council. As stalwart Brisbane Transport employee, Ian Lynas, recalls:

On the first day a return was being made via the Queen Street Bus Station, the Toyota effortlessly went down the hill in Albert Street, but when it came to climbing out of the bus station to the Victoria Bridge, it was having none of it. On duty in the Bus Station communications room was an Inspector known as a “by the rules” man, except that this situation was not in any rule book. The author was awaiting a journey on route 531 to Inala when the Inspector came up to me and as I hadn’t taken on any passengers, he got me to push the Toyota up the hill and then to proceed via William, Elizabeth, Creek, Adelaide and Albert Streets back to the Bus Station, a trip that took me about 15 minutes with lots of traffic lights. My next trip left late of course. The route was changed to continue along Adelaide Street, left to North Quay and then right to the Victoria Bridge.

The new service could only be described as a “miserable failure”, there was patronage to be had, but the bus was so unreliable. One story doing the rounds at Light Street at the time was on the fairly new Runcorn CityXpress, where you could wait nearly 10 minutes after departure time, go around the block and back past the terminus and you would be back on time, but with the Battery bus you had to decide to leave 10 minutes before the bus was due to depart, talk to it nicely and after about a minute, you would hear the whirring of the electric motor, but you couldn’t rush these things, it still would not leave the kerb and low and behold putting your indicators on to leave the kerb, the Toyota would have none of that either. It would leave the kerb when it wanted to. Putting indicators on was an invitation for all the traffic at the rear to bank up to allow you to leave the kerb and of course the traffic would get impatient and race past the bus at which point the Toyota would go for it. It had a mind of its own.

Side view of the electric bus in June 1992 at the special bus stop erected outside South Brisbane Station. Photo: Ian Lynas

As a result of these performance issues, the new loop service was abandoned as the bus returned to Australian Electric Vehicle Manufacturers in Sydney during July 1992 for further modifications to take place. The vehicle later returned to Brisbane in February 1993 and was re-deployed onto a ferry replacement shuttle service between Merthyr and New Farm on 6 March 1993, as Council refurbished these ferry wharves.

However, the vehicle continued to be plagued by performance issues and was decommissioned from service in April 1993. Thus ended Council’s first experimentation with electric buses.

Return to electric after three decades

Almost three decades later, Brisbane City Council has returned to battery-electric buses with the first of four Chinese-built Yutong buses entering service on the free City Loop service on 14 June 2022. In another instance of history repeating itself, Council is currently trailing the buses prior to purchasing a large order to complement it’s current diesel and CNG powered fleet of almost 1300 buses.

The first electric-powered Yutong bus pictured alongside current and former alternative energy Council buses at Eagle Farm depot on Friday, 11 June 2021. Photo: Transport for Brisbane